There are many different views and opinions about what it means to succeed, what fulfillment is really about, and how to achieve this sought-after status of “a successful person.” When you hear someone from the upper echelon describing a person’s work life, they often say, rather euphemistically: “He has done very well for himself.” It’s usually code to mean: “That guy is rich; he makes a lot of money every year.” So that is the default description of someone who is a success. However, the ability to command a large paycheck or have a thriving and profitable business is just one of a few different approaches to the age-old quest of how to be successful. Indeed, “How to be successful?” is the perennial, deep question asked by every parent and virtually every thinking person. Herein are views and opinions from wise persons throughout the ages…
“To do more for the world than the world does for you – that is success.”
Why the picture of the dog? What does it have to do with how to be successful? It is a deep hint about success, happiness, fulfillment, and joy: He or she is doing what they love, what comes naturally. Dogs are meant to fetch and be in relationship with loving human beings. They want nothing more. Hint #2: fetching toys is absolutely free. If one can determine what makes one tick – what one’s true nature is – then removing impediments to expressing and indulging it is key, as is keeping one’s mind centered on the positive goal of fulfilling that. Finding meaning in one’s struggle or journey on the road to self-fulfillment is the nature of true success.
“In the long run men inevitably become the victims of their wealth. They adapt their lives and habits to their money, not their money to their lives. It preoccupies their thoughts, creates artificial needs, and draws a curtain between them and the world.” ~ Herbert Croly
It’s not just about making a lot of money, or outdoing one’s competition. There are other tried-and-true takes on this all-important goal, including being of service, having fun and making the most of leisure, overcoming limitations and obstacles, and being a good person. In fact, there is a definite line of reasoning that “chasing a buck” and “worshipping the money god” is in fact the exact wrong answer to the question of how to be successful. Ethics writer and prominent legal scholar Derrick Bell succinctly points out that “[w]e can choose ethics over advancement and never regret the choice.”
This may come as a surprise to those of us who have accumulated tens (hundreds?) of thousands of dollars in student debt, or for individuals who rise every morning thinking of how to get an edge, what their next move is, or how to “keep up with the Joneses,” as it were. Few parents want their child to skip college to become an actor, but the fact that dentists and lawyers are not very happy at all really raises the question of how important money really is in the quest for how to be successful. What are the professions that tend to make persons the happiest and most satisfied? Here is a look at that from the usually-reliable weekly magazine, The Week.
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
The article I just referenced maintains that money is, in fact, not the best way to find a “meaningful career.” Author Eric Barker cites the book How to Find Fulfilling Work liberally when he attempts (succeeds?) to debunk the money myth: “…when people are asked about what gives them job satisfaction, they rarely place money at the top of the list. In the Mercer global-engagement scale – drawing on interviews with thousands of workers in Europe, the US, China, Japan, and India – ‘base pay’ only comes in at number seven out of 12 key factors. [How to Find Fulfilling Work]. Having meaning in your life increases life satisfaction twice as much as wealth. Those with a modest income who felt there was meaning in their lives were twice as likely to experience life satisfaction as were those who were wealthier but who felt that their lives lacked a sense of meaning [100 Simple Secrets of the Best Half of Life].
“Don’t confuse fame with success – Madonna is one, Helen Keller is the other.”
Cited above is an article by the influential psychologist Roy Baumeister (and others), in which one of his main points is that “happiness and meaningfulness are related but distinct.” He is saying that when it comes to how to be successful, there is “being happy” and there is “finding meaning.” That is an interesting but perhaps not crucial distinction. The difference between the two is probably the difference between being in Las Vegas and being “on a roll” (happy) (or being at Disneyland with your child, if you prefer!) and volunteering as a crossing guard or feeding the homeless; very few of us have “fun” or are really “happy” when dishing out mashed potatoes to people who haven’t showered in a week, but can you not imagine being in a casino at a blackjack table getting boring in exactly five or six hours? In the twentieth hour you would probably be willing to trade your winnings for some sleep or a shower or just being back home and away from all the madness.
“How to be successful” can start to seem like being on a hamster wheel if it is a ceaseless pursuit of dollar bills. In fact, 99% of the time (unless you’re Scrooge) you only want to earn big bucks so that you can trade them for something else. Safety, predictability, control, power, love, happiness, meaning, and purpose come to mind. Hence the popularity of books such as The Purpose-Driven Life. Often, in fact, folks find meaning and purpose in suffering or enduring or persevering – typically when they feel that it has something to do with God or God’s perceived plan for oneself. No one expects God to do them the solid of dropping a lot of cash in their lap, now do they?
“Part of what you learn from majoring in something [in college] that actually interests you is that there are more fulfilling ways to spend your time than trying to be rich.” ~ William Deresiewicz
Baumeister et al. say this: “By and large, money has a big effect on happiness but little effect on meaning. Being able to buy the things one needs had a significant positive relationship to happiness but was irrelevant to meaning.” This says to me that how to be successful has two levels at least: the first is that of being able to have/make enough money to get one’s needs met (the simple, instrumental needs) and to entertain oneself. Blow off steam. Vacationing, for example. But I don’t believe that endless vacationing and the latest model of big-screen television and escorts and gold and yachts really makes one happy; if it did, wouldn’t the rich be much happier than the rest of us? This shows that the rich are not really happier overall. As the rapper Notorious BIG put it: “Mo money, mo problems.”
Imagine being out at sea and having a yacht engine breakdown, or being held up by pirates, or paying a $15,000 diesel bill. Not very fun. But one can picture a family that could be considered “poor” hanging around the living room one Saturday afternoon, eating and laughing and teasing and maybe dancing. Very low-cost, but high-meaning. The question of how to be successful often means having fulfilling relationships and feeling like what you do counts and is true to your nature.
“Success means having the courage, the determination, and the will to become the person you believe you were meant to be.”
Barker continues: “Can you guess what Harvard Business Review says is the number one career regret? ‘I wish I hadn’t taken the job for the money.’ Despite low pay and high unemployment artists have higher job satisfaction than most people. In fact, artists are more likely to suffer from depression and other mood problems – and yet they’re still happier with their careers. So money isn’t meaningful. What about prestige? Well, one kind is, the other kind isn’t. Status isn’t meaningful — but respect is. Being in a top dog profession is nice but you don’t get meaning from it. What you need is respect — where people appreciate what you do and admire you for it.” Teachers, nurses, and home health care aides can find great meaning and enjoy significant respect, all without much pay. When answering the question Why Rich People Really Aren’t Happier, this writer answers: because “happiness is not for sale.”
There is a theory in psychology called the “set-point theory of happiness.” It indicates that we all are relatively “set” in our happiness level, and that is based on significant and largely-inflexible issues such as genes. I would wager that exercise, diet, and so on play a role in that. Fish oil pills are, dollar for dollar, one of the best things one can do for their mental health, in fact. Anyway, point is: you may get a temporary rise in happiness when something positive happens – a new job or car or a budding romance – but once the newness and the chemical changes wear off – and they always do – you are back to square one.
Some people are just happier than others, and it is mostly natural. Some efforts at having the right attitude can make a difference, but the path of least resistance is not forcing more jubilance and ebullience – it is found in meaning and fulfillment. How to be successful is a question that can lead down one of two paths (at least): go higher and higher in a high-paying career path, or just do what really makes you feel good, fulfilled, and whole. It’s the difference between going to law school and dealing with the $150,000 debt versus volunteering at the local elementary school.
“Many businesses are starting to discover that strong profits, high salaries, and material benefits are not alone the great motivators they were once thought to be. Everybody likes to be rewarded, but what is even more important is to be doing a job that is felt to be rewarding in itself. Deep down, most people want to do good in the world. They want their lives to make a positive difference. They need to be able to work toward goals consistent with their noblest tendencies and aspirations.” ~ Tom Morris
In this article, J.D. Roth says “You don’t want to be rich—you want to be happy. Although the mass media has convinced many Americans that wealth leads to happiness, that’s not always the case. Money can certainly help you achieve your goals, provide for your future, and make life more enjoyable, but merely having the stuff doesn’t guarantee fulfillment.” “It seems natural to assume that rich people will be happier than others,” note psychologists Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener in the old but good book, Happiness. “But money is only one part of psychological wealth, so the picture is complicated.” The Roth article is worth reading.
So, in sum, the perspective of Values of the Wise on the question of how to be successful is that one shouldn’t chase money, and one shouldn’t really even pursue happiness all that directly. It’s all about meaning and fulfillment and purpose and satisfaction. Consider these two smart ideas:
“Happiness, not gold or prestige, is the ultimate currency” ~
In an effort to provide grist for the mill when it comes to you grinding up the logs of success, I welcome you to click HERE to do some research in the Wisdom Archive on this topic. These inspirational quotes by the wise should keep your eyes on the prize, so to speak. Try using keywords mentioned throughout this article; you really can’t go wrong just typing in love or happiness or success and seeing what comes up. Try morality or life of value on for size. Get lost in it – it’s vast and it’s easy and it’s free.
At bottom, finding fulfillment, meaning, and success has a lot to do with one’s mindset, and one’s mindset has a lot to do with the thoughts and I dare say, quotations, one keeps in mind. Spend some time thinking about what they mean, and really trying to live them. There is a reason why so many successful individuals and smart persons have centered on similar ideas throughout the ages: for centuries, the wise have known much that is significant and can make a positive impact each of us, here and now. Listen carefully.
“No man’s fortune can be an end worthy of his being.” ~ Francis Bacon